The city of Winter Garden has formalized its association with Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando to solve the increasing problem of feral cats. The Winter Garden City Commission approved an agreement with the organization at its May 25 meeting that allows Pet Alliance to work with local volunteers to identify the cat colonies and initiate its Trap Neuter Return program.
City Manager Jon C. Williams said the city has relied on volunteers for several years to notify officials when they see a feral cat colony.
“We’ve had some volunteers who have done a great amount of work to try to trap those cats and they take them to the vet, and we try to reimburse those folks,” Williams said. “I won’t say it’s not been successful, but we didn’t feel like we were reaching the cat population we needed to reach.”
The city has allocated money for the last two years to try to alleviate the issue, but officials wanted to increase efforts. One of the volunteers shared information about Pet Alliance, and the city asked representatives to make a presentation to the city. Pet Alliance has similar programs in other municipalities, including the city of Orlando.
“It’s been successful, so we decided, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” Williams said.
Pet Alliance will work with the team of volunteers already in place.
“The goal is to identify the cat colonies, figure out where they are,” he said. “We rely on the community to report the cat colonies, but we just don’t know how big the colonies are.”
The plan, he said, is for Pet Alliance employees to hold weekly trapping events.
Houde said she is typically in Winter Garden on Tuesdays to canvas the area in which she and volunteers will be working. She is asking residents who see large communities of cats — numbering around 30 — to reach out to her through email, [email protected], or by calling (407) 967-5106.
They will trap cats on Thursdays, perform spay and neuter surgeries on Fridays and return them on Saturdays if the cats are medically cleared.
It costs $60 to spay or neuter one cat. The city pays Pet Alliance for every cat trapped and treated. Williams said the city will continue to work with the local volunteers who can identify the smaller cat colonies.
City officials are not sure of the number of unsocialized cat communities there are in Winter Garden.
“What we’re excited about with the partnership is we can better pinpoint where the colonies are,” Williams said.
Several community volunteers have reported large colonies at Westside Townhomes, off West Colonial Drive. When the city held its kickoff meeting with Pet Alliance, about 16 volunteers attended and vowed their support.
The partnership with Pet Alliance started about two weeks ago, and already there have been results. Cathy Houde, the Community Cat Program manager, said 27 cats were captured, treated and returned during the first two-day event. Nearby Stage Stop Campground is also on the target list.
“Mobile home parks and apartments — those can be higher traffic areas for cats,” she said. “All the locations we’ve been given, we’ll work there and move out from there.”
Houde spends each week canvassing neighborhoods to educate community members, setting traps, and transporting the cats to and from their surgery at Pet Alliance’s Alafaya Trail clinic, where the work can be done more efficiently and cost-effectively, she said. Community members have been grateful to see Pet Alliance and the city working together to resolve this issue in their neighborhoods.
“The city has been great and has given us everything we need,” Houde said.
Once a cat mends from surgery, it is returned to its neighborhood.
“They go exactly back to the same yard or street that we trap them at,” Houde said. “Everybody’s labeled. If we trap in front of someone’s house, that’s where we release them, right back in front. The important part of that is (the) return. The cats are returned to their home, which could be a home or cul-de-sac, wherever they’re being fed.
Houde explained why they are returned and not taken to a shelter.
“Shelters have to deal with more so the owners of the cats that are being surrendered,” she said. “One, we don’t have the resource to take them in off the street. Two, they aren’t adoptable; they’ve had no experience with human contact at all. … We don’t use the word ‘feral’ – because people don’t understand the term.
“Community cats — that term consists of stray, abandoned and the unsocialized,” Houde said. “I use ‘unsocialized’ as opposed to ‘feral’ because that puts cats in the bad light and there’s nothing wrong with these cats. Many of these cats, they have been around humans. They might have been dumped, they might have been somebody’s pet that was put outside. That is now the life they live. They have caretakers and people who feed them.
“Cats are territorial, and to take them out of that would be unfair,” she said. “I’m not going to take a friendly cat and put it in a shelter and stress it out. I’m not going to take the cat out of the neighborhood it knows and the people it knows. People, because they’re compassionate, they feel like all animals need to live inside, and that’s not the case.”
Since November 2018, Pet Alliance has spayed and neutered more than 2,300 community cats through its TNR program. This reduces the number of kittens born in the wild by interrupting the cat breeding cycle. Female cats can have multiple litters a year, so it’s important to get them trapped and neutered, according to Pet Alliance.
“While these feral cats are not adoptable, we can still improve their lives and help the community with any nuisance behavior, as spay/neuter surgery helps stave off hormonal responses which can cause marking, fighting among colony cats and overpopulation of community cats,” according to the organization’s website. “Cats are also vaccinated and given any necessary medical attention, likely for the first time in their whole lives.”